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Columbia Hillen

Ever had a magician for dinner?

I don’t mean grilled and sprinkled with spices. I mean as a guest.

Let me tell you, it’s an otherworldly experience.

My pleasure was having Tara Okan, illusionist extraordinaire, perform table-side at MoVida restaurant in Auckland and not only mesmerise me with his superb talents but also various members of staff who gathered around our table. 

Tara the Magician (l) and Sean Hillen (r). Photo by Columbia Hillen

I’d met Tara a few weeks earlier through David Rees who kindly introduced himself on the street as I explored the North Island metropolis. Such was the immediate bond, we ended up on a sunset picnic adventure together to a secluded beach. 

Tara’s innovative ‘effects’ as they’re called in magic literature provided the cream on the cake to an enjoyable evening at this fine-dining restaurant offering what it describes as ‘Spanish cuisine through a New Zealand lens.’ 

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Opened in August 2022 and with a 150-person capacity, MoVida is located two floors up in the modernist Seafarers Building on Tyler Street in the heart of the elegant, heritage Britomart district. The building’s entrance door stands opposite a spacious open square where a popular Saturday market takes place while its dining room overlooks Waitemata Harbour. 

Formerly occupied by another restaurant called Ostro, its original owners, the Savor Group partnered with Movida’s owners, including head chef and founder, Frank Camorra for the opening.

Michael Nesti, Restaurant Manager. Photo by Columbia Hillen

Designed by Paul Izzard of Auckland-based firm Izzard Design, it’s best described as ‘tapas bar meets dining room,’ comfortable without being overly fussy. Much of the seating is rounded booth-style but my companion and I were fortunate to be allocated one of the stand-alone tables beside floor-to-ceiling folding glass doors which stretch the length of the restaurant and beyond which is a narrow balcony and then a clear view of sailboats gliding gracefully along the Pacific Ocean.

First, the staff, young, friendly, efficient and multi-national, from countries such as Colombia, Argentina, Spain, New Zealand and the US, all led by dynamic general manager, Michael Nesti, a native of Tuscany.

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Kicking off with cocktails, we decided on vermouth and we were delighted with the diverse offer, a selection of six including a dark, tangy version from Tarragona. 

MoVida’s menu, divided into four categories, aperitivos, tapas, raciones – slightly larger sharing plates – and parillas – grilled dishes – matches menus at its successful parent operation in Melbourne. We opened with a popular Kiwi seafood delicacy, green-lipped mussels, renowned for their anti-inflammatory properties thus extremely beneficial for arthritis sufferers. These little dainties, fresh as if just plucked from the ocean, were served cold with a green gazpacho-like sauce comprising cilantro, garlic, chili, lemon and olive brine. Next up was burrata, plump in the middle of a colorful ratatouille-like bowl of roasted onion, peppers, tomatoes and fresh basil. 

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Preferring seafood, I opted for marinated octopus as my next course, caught near Kaikoura, a coastal town in South Island. To my mind, this denizen of the deep is delicious naked, but it was even tastier cooked as it was on a skewer over coals with fino, dry white sherry and paprika, accompanied by potatoes and aioli.

My companion went with a beef dish, razor-thin slices of air-dried wagyu with truffled potato foam, pickled kohlrabi and horseradish cream, with flakes of poached egg on top and a platter of almond and horseradish crackers on the side.

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Delighted with the quality of the seafood, my finale was gambas ahumadas, house-smoked prawns, Otago clams with butter beans while my companion opted for the carrilera de buey, soft beef cheek braised in spiced red wine and sweet Pedro Ximenez sherry, served with cauliflower puree. I’m not sure which one of us was happier.

A big thank you to our waitresses, Medelin Watape and Erika Martinez, who served us throughout the evening with sincere zest and, of course, to Tara, New Zealand’s answer to David Copperfield.  

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